Outside, the wind rustled the many colored fallen leaves, golds and browns, fraying at the edges, as if even after death and drying, disintegration could continue with its own haunting sentience. Outside, the large maple tree scraped its branches together slowly, ominously, while the clouds that had begun their traversing across the sky after several hours of clear and quiet blue, moved like migrating birds in strange pattern formations, onward, away. Outside, the world breathed, silently, expectantly, hushed.
Inside, the girl’s room felt safe and familiar. She was twelve years old, in that strange liminal place her parents called the ‘tweens, the age of not believing. The girl’s window was shut against the October cold, as well as the piles of snow that came in early the night before. The desk did not face the window. Instead, the window opened out along the wall to the girl’s left as she sat at her laptop checking email. The door to the girl’s room stood slightly open behind her, and she could hear her parents’ murmurs, the low somber tones of their voices that characterized their talk during this season, in contrast to their more buoyant, joyful and louder registers which lasted from Winter Solstice through Fall Equinox. “This is not a time to draw attention to ourselves,” her mother would often tell the girl, along with the girl’s younger brother, in years past when ghosts and goblins and witches with pointy hats and long root like fingers, boney and gnarled as if pulled ruthlessly from the earth, had seemed imminent and real. But her mother never told her why. Now, the girl thought adamantly, she was too old for such foolish things. At least this is what she told herself, safe and sheltered in her room, the light casting a 4 o-clock shadow across her carpeted floor, and the comforting noises of her parents’ conversation and the ding, ding of her brother’s video game floating in to her from down the hall. But blood runs cold, even for such a girl, now presumably freed from the night terrors of a child.
“Hello, little girl,” read the subject line of the newest email she was looking at, from an unknown address. How odd, the girl thought, for an email from an unknown person to have come in just now, with a subject that sounded like a greeting specifically for her. Was it spam, she wondered. The subject made no claims of false dire needs for help or an advertising scam. She opened the email. “You have caught my attention,” it said. That was all. The girl blinked uneasily. She looked again at the “from” line. From: 4231I936. No name. Was it her imagination, or had this email come in exactly when she had been thinking about her mother’s warnings about drawing attention to yourself? The coincidence did not go unnoticed. She glanced quickly out the window. Nothing strange could be seen, only the clouds had moved closer, darting across the roof of the house as if chased by the wind.
October 31st dawned with a sky that for several minutes appeared blood red. More clouds came to cover the girl’s view, clear to the horizon, and around noon it began to rain. The girl had been wary about turning on her computer and looking through her email, but it was Saturday, and she wanted to talk to her friends. There were very few emails from friends, and too many from 4231I936. With increasing fear and trepidation she read the messages. “I have sent the wind to find you.” “You don’t know who I am, but I know who you are. I know you. I will be waiting for you.” “I am not as far from you now as you might think. I wish for company… I will come for you.”
The girl’s blue eyes paled. Someone was stalking her. A secret admirer? A man? Could he see her from the window? She closed the blinds tight. Was he that close? How did he know her? Feeling slightly sweaty with fear, the girl ran to join her parents. They were in the kitchen, chopping vegetables and marinating meat for the feast of Samhain come evening.
Samhain for the girl had always been a mysterious, slightly terrifying holiday. It marked their family’s observance of the New Year, but that would be officially celebrated tomorrow, after it was clear that the pursuers in the wild hunt had passed by the family household without snatching a hapless soul. Tonight the vale between the worlds grew ever thinner, so that the chill of the storm felt like it must have originated straight out of the otherworld, the land of the ancestors and the sidhe.
The girl shivered despite the warm coziness of central heating and the security of home. They would set a plate of the feast her parents were preparing out on the lawn for their ancestors, light several candles and wish well the departed whom they could name, and then go trick-or-treating with their friends. The girl wondered whether she was getting too old for trick-or-treating, but was glad that the nebulous status of her age made it still possible for her to bravely step into the night, safely flirting with the possibilities of begrudging fairy folk and vengeful hags without ridicule.
As she approached the kitchen, the girl overheard her parents talking about the status of the sky. “A fierce storm is brewing for tonight,” her father was saying, “Dy you think we’ll see more than we bargained for this year?”
“Hush,” her mother shushed him, spying their agitated daughter standing in the doorway. Turning to her she said, “What’s wrong?”
Alarm danced along the girl’s down-turned mouth, and in her narrowed eyes. She sat heavily on a stool near the gas stove. She didn’t know how to explain the stalker, the emails, or the dread threatening to explode from inside her. “Has anyone ever been caught by the hunt across the sky?” was all she could ask. If she said more, she thought, she might upset her parents too much.
Her mother smiled. “Oh no, darling, it’s just a metaphor for the seasons, the death of summer.” Children have such endearing fears she thought, wistfully.
It was just after eleven when the girl slogged through the front door, done with her breathless night of trick-or-treating. She had left with a cloth sack to keep her candy dry: the rain came down fiercely, and now it was beginning to snow. Without knowing why, once the girl had gone into her room to change out of her wet clothes she had an irresistible urge to check her email to see whether another message was waiting for her. At the sound of the tone indicating new messages, a large clump of snow fell heavily off the maple tree, smacking the window with a loud thump. The girl jumped, and almost screamed. She could have sworn it sounded like a knock at the window.
“”We’re going out to watch for the sky riders!” her brother hollered down the hall at her. This was another of their Samhain traditions. She remembered Samhains past when she was small enough to be carried in her father’s arms, and how she had squinted up at the sky secure in his sturdy embrace, hoping, and yet not hoping, that the hunter and his hounds would appear. It was fifteen minutes to midnight. She glanced at the email from the strange address that was sitting in her inbox, as if drawn to reading it through some magnetic pull. There was now a picture attached to the email of a cloaked figure wearing a set of antlers, carrying a club and a spear, and under that, the words, “Don’t you want to live an extraordinary life, little girl?”
“No!” and, “not anymore,” thought the girl, startled. A moment later, terror tore through her. What if this being, whoever he was, could read her mind, had read her mind? She shut her eyes. Extraordinary was definitely over rated. The girl wanted from now on to spend every day eating cereal for breakfast, hugging her parents good-bye as she left for school, doing her homework, and promptly going to sleep afterward. No more day dreaming about the world out there, running through fields, making a huge difference, and whatever else might draw any attention to her inadvertently. She wanted to be left alone, forgotten.
The girl ran out of her room without looking back. Joining her brother and parents on the back porch out of reach of the snow drifts and the howling wind, she proceeded to cram herself between her mother and father who had been standing with their arms around each other. They were startled by her sudden need for affection, but held her close anyway.
“Look!” her brother shouted excitedly., “The sky hunter! I see him, I see him!”
“What’s that…” the children’s mother began, but trailed off into stunned silence.
And then, unbelieving, the girl raised her eyes, too, from where they had been squarely fixed on the various types of rock in the pavement. Far off, perhaps a mile off, a dark shadow loomed on the horizon. Slowly, deliberately, it came striding over the sky, through the clouds, as if for this strange being air had a solidity it would not lend any other. From the direction of the dark figure came a mournful, eerie howl, only partly masked by the gale of the storm picking up around them. The far off sound seemed to originate from everywhere and nowhere, ebbing and flowing, a tide of baleful voices that were decidedly not human. It seemed to the girl that the wind suddenly found an awareness of its own breathing, wailing it’s sorrow through the frenzied clouds for the first time.
The humans on the ground stood motionless, too shocked to move. As the figure approached, it grew larger, but still just as darkly undifferentiated. It appeared to be clothed by shadow, wrapped in it, like a great umbral shawl. The howling grew in intensity, now made out in individual voices, snarling and baying, hungry for the living. The girl shivered and tried hiding in her mother’s down jacket, but she was not quite small enough for that.
“Run inside!” the father shouted above the unearthly calamity over their heads. But at that moment the clouds dispersed, and the moon, still almost full, shown bright and piercing through the sky, its light like arrows, sharp and defining. The girl turned, dazzled by the sudden appearance of the light, that aberrant brightness incongruously illuminating the darkness beyond her, and saw the great hunter in the sky, poised in mid air. The fact that he hunted without companions and had no horse with him, made his image more eerie, his pursuit more ominous. He carried a spear on his back and a club in hand, his long, unruly black hair streaming out from under a full set of antlers, his ancient face grave and mocking. The long beard gave him the look of one with wild authority, as he hovered gracefully around fifty feet away and twice as high above besides. Three hounds stood on either side of him, and though they were temporarily stayed, they continually pawed the clouds with impatience.
For a second, action failed the girl, and she simply trembled violently. Then the family vanished indoors. The clouds returned with a vengeance. The door slammed. No words were exchanged. All entrances and windows locked. Candles and lights turned off. The parents and the children huddled deep under their covers and fell asleep. The girl slept next to the window, the blinds drawn against the moon, and the images of that haunted scene, now seeped into her dreams.
Outside, the ground lay heavy with mist and a deafening silence. Outside the maple tree shuddered and shook in the frenzied encroaching dark. Outside, he was waiting… waiting… until the third hour, he waited. Inside, the family began slowly to stir, and then to wake. Inside the girl’s room, nothing stirred, not even the air, and only emptiness remained to greet the day. She was gone.
This story is almost entirely based on a dream I had many years ago, long before I ever heard Damh the Bard’s song on the same subject. In that dream, I became the little girl, even though my waking age was around twenty-four. I awoke before she disappeared. For those who dare curiosity, go and ask the hunter of the sky what fate has befallen her, for there is always more than one version of a story to be told. However, I advise that if you do get his attention, you should probably not even bother with the locks on your windows on Samhain Eve. He’ll be waiting for you …